Bernie Madoff and Dick Cheney are the most fascinating showbiz personalities on our screens right now
By now, you may feel you know everything you need to — and maybe more than you want to — about Bernie Madoff and his greedy, sociopathic, evilly brilliant Ponzi scheme of an investment business. But the riveting new documentary Chasing Madoff doesn’t just rehash the depressing details of how Madoff bilked thousands of innocents out of their savings. Instead, the director, Jeff Prosserman, looks at the underlying question that haunted the Madoff scandal. Namely, how did he fool everyone for so long? The answer turns out to be: He didn’t.
Borrowing the graphic visual techniques and first-person into-the-camera flavor of Errol Morris (whose films, at this point, are practically a genre), Prosserman builds his movie around Harry Markopolos, the independent fraud investigator who took all of five minutes to figure out that Madoff was a crook. When did Markopolos do this? Back in 1999! One look at the clean, upward-tilting diagonal line graph of Madoff’s profits was enough to indicate he was lying. His earnings had a consistency that wasn’t possible in the real world. The trouble was, this whistle-blower kept blowing his whistle — and no one would listen. Elements of Markopolos’ case against Madoff were actually printed in Barron’s, but few paid attention, and when he took a much heftier sheaf of evidence to The Wall Street Journal and, finally, to the Securities and Exchange Commission, not a single investigator at either institution was lured into pursuing the case further. But why not?
Because, the film implies, everyone connected to Wall Street was more or less terrified of Madoff. His offshore accounts, fueled by clients of the most elite of international banks, probably included investments from the Russian Mob, his financial house of cards propped up, in part, by blood money. He was, in effect, a legally sanctioned Ponzi mobster, and the sheer power he wielded as a moneymaker turned him into a sultan you couldn’t mess with. Of course, to pick apart his empire was also to risk picking apart how Wall Street did business. Chasing Madoff has some thriller-style drama, as the wily, slightly forlorn straight shooter Markopolos (pictured, right) recalls how he started to carry a gun around. That may sound like an overwrought reaction on his part, but really, it’s an insider reaction to the Madoff mystique — to the steely mesh of fear and intimidation concealed by Madoff’s mild, almost avuncular mensch-of-investment image. Chasing Madoff shows you how he got away with it, how he staged his financial crimes on such a grand and powerful scale that they could wind up being systematically ignored.
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Why is it that I find Dick Cheney so fascinating, so weirdly cool in his shamelessness, so perpetually gripping to watch? You could argue — and I would — that during his two-term reign as vice president, he damaged the country as much as anyone has in the past 20 years. At a glance, he can seem like just one more right-wing fire-breather a liberal centrist like myself loves to hate. But there are plenty of those around these days, and most of them, from the Tea Party leaders to John Boehner and Rick Perry, specialize in the overheating of “Let’s take America back!” rhetoric. Cheney never gets heated — he’s as terse as a tax attorney, as methodical as the heart pump affixed to his chest — and the key to the coiled intrigue of his image is the way that he uses that outward lack of emotion to imply the things he’s not saying. Cheney, pushing his self-righteous, score-settling, I-did-it-my-way-and-by-the-way f—- you! memoir, In My Time, has been all over the media this week, and while it’s hardly news that politics is now entertainment, it’s worth pointing out, even if you hate him, what a marvelous character Dick Cheney is and always will be. A Dick Cheney appearance — on Sean Hannity, on Today, wherever — is reality television at its best.
The perverse beauty of it is that he’s the guy who doesn’t come on like a character. He’s the assistant coach on the sidelines, the boring corporate loyalist, the backroom planner who lets the others get out in front of the camera. But Cheney is sort of like Robert Duvall at his most studiously recessive-aggressive: He steals scenes from other, more conventionally handsome or majestic stars. Beneath his outward show of neutrality, the aura he creates is that he knows the secrets — that behind every demagogue stands a fearless office manager, and that’s him. He’s the Bureaucrat of Oz.
In his press appearances, as in his book, Cheney has perfected a new form of lying: tongue held firmly in cheek — only it’s not a joke. By which I mean, when he refuses to admit that he’s wrong about anything, never giving an inch on WMD or waterboarding or the Valerie Plame affair, trashing even his Republican colleagues if they dare to disagree with him, treating the killing of Osama bin Laden as if it were a big nothing (and, of course, stitching “facts” together at will to support all these views), he’s not really pretending that he’s telling the truth. When he revels in the dry delivery of a Vietnam-era euphemism like “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or when he uses that snakish half-smile as he’s making a hash of recent history, what he’s really saying is: “You’re accusing me of lying? Get over it, dummy. Of course I’m lying!” The implication, though, is that he’s lying not because he’s a scoundrel who’s out for himself, but because he’s required to lie to cover up the brutal tooth-and-claw realpolitik dirty deeds that most of us don’t want to admit our civilization is based on, and that government officials are never allowed to talk about. Dick Cheney’s presence says that he’s willing to be the most duplicitous man in America, under the guise of being the most never-raising-his-voice neutral, because he’s also the most honest and officiously heroic. The Bureaucrat of Oz may be a flimflam artist, but he’s got America’s back.
Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is showbiz.
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman